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Adolescence and Stealing from Family

When adolescents steal from family, emotional damage is done.

By age 3 or 4, most children have been taught the possessive distinction between what is "mine" and what is "yours."

Connected to this understanding is the injunction not to cross that boundary without consent. That is, when desiring to use what is somebody else's, one must ask for, and receive, authorization first. To take without asking or being given permission breaches the other person's property rights.

It is considered ethically "wrong," and is labeled stealing or theft. Because it is what belongs to a person, property theft is usually considered personal: "Take what is mine and you take part of me." Hence, when stolen from, victims feel attacked and suffer a loss.

By the onset of adolescence, around ages 9-13, most young people have this concept of personal ownership firmly installed. And yet, with the awakening desire to break boundaries for more freedom and independence, there is interest in testing old rules and restraints to see if the prohibitions of childhood still hold.

Out of this motivation, stealing can begin, casually at first. So, for example, in apparent innocence an adolescent pockets what was left around, or may take something to tease, aggravate, or torment a sibling. Then there is "borrowing" from parents.

In adolescence, "borrowing without permission" can blur the distinction between what is stealing and what is not when, for example, a mother's piece of jewelry turns up missing. Confronting the prime suspect, the mother is given explanations that sound more like a series of excuses: "I forgot to ask." "It wasn't gone for long." "I just needed it for the date." "I was going to give it back." "I didn't think you'd mind."

The underlying assumption seems to be, "If I'm grown enough to wear and enjoy your things, then taking them from time to time when I have need should be okay. What's yours should be mine to use." Parents are well-advised to confront this supposedly permissible appropriation early, before it leads to outright theft.

In the same way, they need to confront shoplifting, another common form of limit testing in early adolescence, when young people take from a store to see what they can get away with. Or in middle school, belongings and lunch money can be extorted under bullying threat. In all cases, young people have to be retold and reshown that the rules of respecting private property still hold.

Stealing from family is usually a covert operation, sneaking behind people's backs when they are not around or not looking, leaving the targeted family member wondering if what's missing was lost or stolen, and if stolen, then by whom? Stealing creates suspicion. Soon everyone starts to act watchful.

At length, detection catches the thief, resulting in a confrontation and the culprit being caught. Admission is often reluctant, but after a confession is given, parents demand an explanation of why the adolescent, knowing better, acted as he or she did. Now what?

What steps can parents take when an adolescent steals from family? Here are three: First, there comes education—the adolescent given an understanding of the emotional impact theft has had on the victim and the family. Second, there comes reparation to the victim and consequences for the violation committed. And third, there comes an assessment of what other issues may be going on.

Start with education. Most adolescents who steal from family don't appreciate the damage they have done, considering it primarily a matter of material loss, when in fact the emotional cost matters more because of how family relationships have been impacted. What is stolen from everyone is comfort in the family.

Stealing is a hostile act, so victims are hurt and experience angry feelings from being robbed. There is general distrust of the person who was thieving. There is anxiety over the possibility of more stealing. And there is loss of safety because now everyone feels less secure.

After first encountering the thief, it's usually helpful to have the adolescent sit with the whole family to hear from them how everyone feels in consequence of what he or she did. This is where the young person learns that theft creates far more than material loss. At the end of this time, if the adolescent thief is so sincerely inclined, an apology can be made in acknowledgement of the harm that has been done.

Reparation has to do with making payback arrangements for what has been stolen. Then there needs to be some consequence for the violation that discourages repetition of the thieving act.

Years ago, a parent at a workshop told me about a consequence they required of a 14-year-old who was stealing loose change and bills from family members, a little at time, when they weren't looking. With the victims spread around, he hoped to escape notice. Although a common family response to adolescent theft is for members to keep closer personal track of their ready cash and to keep it more personally secured, these parents did just the opposite: They put the thief in charge of everyone's money.

Each night there would be a family meeting at which members would give the thief among them all their loose bills and coins. He had to carefully count out each amount to each person's satisfaction. Everyone was committing their money to him for safekeeping overnight. Then, next morning, before breakfast at another family meeting, he would carefully count it out and give the money back. "How long do I have to keep doing this?" he asked. The parents' answer: "Until we all agree that we have got our sense of trust and safety back." It took a little over a month, and according to the parents the adolescent never stole from them again.

Finally, it's important for parents to make an assessment. They need to evaluate the issues behind what has happened. Stealing is not only a specific act; it is also a symbolic act. That is, it can represent other problems that need attending to. Also, the motivation matters.

Consider a few common examples of what stealing can be about, and what can prompt it. Stealing from family can be an outcome of envy—jealousy of a more favored sibling who seems to be given more. It can be a lack of impulse control driven by unbridled want. It can be a call for attention, the money or object taken emblematic of desired love. It can be an act of desperation to pay off threatening debts. It can be an expression of grievance, taking what one feels one is owed for some adverse family experience or circumstance. It can be an act of entitlement driven by the belief that family rules don't apply and one deserves to get whatever one takes. It can be an act of aggression, to get back at someone by taking something they value. And it can be a sign of substance abuse, taking money to buy drugs, or taking alcohol or prescription medication for personal use.

In general, it is worth exploring the representational and motivational sides of stealing from family since there can be underlying problems that need to be addressed. Sometimes counseling can help reveal and heal what is psychologically going on.

When an adolescent steals from family, relationships are violated on many emotional levels. To recover, some education, reparation, and assessment are usually required to assure that there will be no repetition of the offense.